American Literature Selections

Willa Cather homestead, rural Webster County, Nebraska
Willa Cather homestead, rural Webster County, Nebraska

American literature has never been content to be just one among the many literatures of the Western World. It has always aspired to be the literature not only of a new continent but of a New World.” —Christopher Dawson

American literature is filled with classic stories, drama, and poetry by masterful authors and poets who capture the language of place and render the ethos of their time. This spring as you begin to assemble summer reading lists, we thought you might have use for a selection of readings from American literature that are couched within curricular resources and designed to increase your students’ College and Career Readiness in Literature and Language.

Tap the great teaching power of these favorite American literary works from a wide variety of writers. This list categorizes these texts under the three regions of the country and one global orientation. These textual settings host all manner of colorful characters who inhabit locations all over America—rural Mississippi, Georgia, Maine, Alabama, New Hampshire, Ohio, New York, Florida, Nebraska, and a migration from Oklahoma to California—as well as voyaging from Massachusetts seaports to whaling ports of call across the world.

These literary texts come in an array of formats—short stories; novels; drama; poems; and essays—and depict different realities in American life across a wide range of time periods from the mid-19th through the mid-20th centuries.

There are additional online resources within these lessons to support your efforts to teach these texts through reading, writing, and speaking and listening across the curriculum. We trust that your students will fall under the thrall of these classics and come to know the “happiness,” in the words of Willa Cather, “to be dissolved into something complete and great.”  

The South

Character in Place: Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path” invites students to analyze this author’s use of characterization and setting to communicate the struggle and reward of a journey taken by Phoenix Jackson—poor, black, and elderly—during the Great Depression.

Faulkner's As I Lay Dying: Form of a Funeral explores the many voices found in a Southern family and community by examining the author's use of multiple voices in its narrative.

Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury: Narrating the Compson Family Decline and the Changing South examines the narrative’s structure, time, voice/point of view, and symbolism throughout this unconventional stream-of-consciousness novel.

Flannery O'Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”: Who’s the Real Misfit? raises fundamental questions about good and evil, morality and immorality, faith and doubt, and the particularly Southern “binaries” of black and white and Southern history and progress.

Scottsboro Boys and To Kill a Mockingbird: A Study of Two Trials compares factual and fiction renditions of similar trial experiences, the Scottsboro Boys trials of 1931 and 1933, and the fictional trial in Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) inspired by them.

Their Eyes Were Watching God: Folk Speech and Figurative Language examines the role that folk groups play in the novel while undertaking a close reading of passages that reveal Zora Neale Hurston’s unique literary techniques and narrative voice.

The North

Dramatic and Theatrical Aspects in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town requires students to be active observers, sensitive to the playwright’s subtle use of a number of dramatic and theatrical devices to shape his drama.

Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”: A Marriage of Poetic Form and Content studies both the content and the intriguing poetic form of this poem to understand the intricate relationship between them.

Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron” provides students with insights into a local-color narrative capturing a young girl’s passion for wildlife in rural Maine and the beginning of her coming of age.

The Secret Society and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby offers an examination of Fitzgerald’s letters and other statements, and a consideration of class, wealth, and status during the turbulent 1920s to explore the nature of the “secret society.”

Why Expressionism? The Glass Menagerie uses expressionism as a vehicle to more fully comprehend the theatrical devices and themes in the play to identify and explicate Tennessee Williams’s techniques and analyze how they create meaning.

Williams’s “The Catastrophe of Success”: An Informational Text reviews an essay the playwright, Tennessee Williams, wrote three years after The Glass Menagerie first opened on Broadway as a reflection on America’s fascination with the cult of celebrity and how the play’s successful run dramatically affected his life. 

The Midwest, and Migration to the West

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath: The Inner Chapters examines the relationship between the inner chapters and the Joad chapters that follow them to analyze how the writer integrates this nonfiction source material into a fictional narrative.

John Steinbeck’s Use of Nonfiction Sources in The Grapes of Wrath analyzes how the author masterfully integrates source material of WPA reports into a fictional narrative, thereby affecting the reader’s perception of the novel’s authenticity.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath: Verbal Pictures performs a visual/textual analysis of an FSA photograph taken by Dorothea Lange that underlies a specific passage by tracing its evolution from photo to journal entries, and then to its final form as a major literary symbol.

Pioneer Values in Willa Cather's My Ántonia explores how Cather’s novel interprets the values of fortitude, hard work, and faithfulness that we associate with pioneer life and analyzes how our perception of historical and social context is shaped by the style and form of the novel.

Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small-Town Life introduces students to the grotesques in this short story cycle set at the turn of the century in the American heartland while focusing on the central character, George, and his relationships with family members and town residents.

Going Global

Melville’s Moby-Dick: Shifts in Narrative Voice and Literary Genres serves to introduce several unique features of the novel: Melville’s shifting perspectives within chapters that develop his complex protagonists, Ishmael and Captain Ahab, and his seamless integration of several literary genres—sermon, hymn, scientific writing and drama—to create a master work that goes above and beyond the appeal of its fictional genre.

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